He spoke of the 2012 speculation, but only to tamp it down – and string it along at the same time. “No great announcements or pronouncements, though some insisted on expecting some,” Daniels said. “I’m not saying I won’t do it,” he added, before saying, as he has before, that he really wanted to retire from the public eye.
But for tonight, at least, Daniels isn’t the one being analyzed for presidential hints. Instead it’s his wife, keynote speaker Cheri Daniels, who is under national scrutiny as a potential obstacle to her husband’s bid – precisely because she does not want so much national scrutiny.
Her speech didn’t say anything about 2012 — except that she isn’t quite as publicity-adverse as some reports would make it seem.
The couple has a somewhat unusual marital history. In 1993, they divorced, and Cheri moved to California. Her husband stayed with their four young daughters. Four years later, they had reconciled.
Some attendees said that it was not Daniels’ wife but his daughters, now adults, who were most wary of the campaign glare on that period in their life. Daniels alluded to that concern in a January interview with a local paper. “It scares them to death,” he said. “And it should.”
But the first lady is the one in the spotlight, for now. “There’s a lot of pressure on her,” said Ted Ogle, the party’s 6th district chairman, before the speech. “Her speaking tonight is a major deal. What it means we might not know for some time.”
Party members had nothing but good things to say about Mrs. Daniels, but they agreed that she had no love for politics.
“I always say that she’s the most elegant, graceful, watermelon-spitter I’ve ever met,” said Eric Holcomb, the state party chairman. “She’s a multi-talented first lady. She’s not shy, but she’s not a political animal.”
Attendees acknowledged that there was nothing they could do but wait.
“Hope’s one thing, reality’s another,” said party member Jim Sullivan. “I’m married, and women have a big say in what you want to do in your life.”
Outside of the event, Daniels’ recent public statements about 2012 have some observers speculating that he will run. “I now believe it is more likely than not that Gov. Daniels will be a candidate for President of the United States,” said Kevin Kellems, a veteran Indiana Republican operative who served as Vice President Dick Cheney’s communications director.
Neither Daniels nor his wife seemed particularly reticent tonight. “In 1975, I met a small town girl and it was one of those first sight things. I couldn’t take my eyes off her legs. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Steak and Shake burger I was eating. Whatever works.”
He explained how he convinced her that he should run for governor in 2003. “It does not overstate the case to say that this was not her first choice,” Daniels said. “There is no rulebook for this, as far as I’m concerned. I would never want you to be any different than you are. I’ll never ask you to go anywhere you don’t want to go.”
True to form, Daniels’ speech was short on national politics and long on the Indiana state fair. The governor is a snappier public speaker, but in video clips of the first lady milking cows and making pancakes, she exuded a funny, friendly charm. She’s not ashamed to say that she’s an honorary “Hooters” girl.
The first lady did not talk about their marriage, except to say that that her husband had sold her an opening joke for ten dollars. She showed a highlight reel of their best matching Halloween costumes.
And yet, while there was no sign of her feelings about 2012, Daniels’ speech did give some hint of the kind of campaigner she would be. While she mostly stood on the sidelines in her husband’s gubernatorial bids, her down-home sensibility helps humanize a potential candidate that has been typecast as bookish and intellectual.
Lieutenant Gov. Becky Skillman seemed to be touting Daniels for a bigger role. “She is refreshing, she is authentic, she’s obviously funny and she’s different, you know, from the more political first ladies of the past,” she said after the speech. “It’s not that she doesn’t to do politics, she does politics in her own way, a way that’s enjoyable for her and that’s meaningful for her.”
Skillman said even those closest to Daniels don’t know if he’ll run. But she knew one thing: “Don’t expect Cheri Daniels to change. She will be herself regardless of what comes in the future.”